A first fascination with caves leads to a world stage
Kabage Karanja had one of his first and deepest experiences when, as a teenage member of the Hodari Boys, a youth mentoring club, he camped in the Suswa Caves, northwest of Nairobi, in Kenya.
It was a special memory for Mr. Karanja, now an architect, in part because “I remember waking up in the middle of the night,” he said, “and there was a Maasai warrior who was just standing there watching us sleep. ”
He was also fascinated by the idea that humans’ earliest forays into architecture took place in caves, so when he, Stella Mutegi, and Balmoi Abe (who has since left their partnership) started their own business, they did it. have named. Cellar_Office.
This week, Cave_Bureau will become the first Kenyan company to debut at the Venice Architecture Biennale with the “Obsidian Rain” exhibition in the central pavilion.
For the show, 1,600 obsidian stones collected in Gilgil, Kenya will be suspended at precise heights from a wooden and mesh structure to replicate a section of the roof of the Mbai caves on the outskirts of Nairobi, Mr. Karanja’s hometown. Inside, visitors can rest on logs from an African cedar, also from Kenya.
“We were shocked to have been invited” to participate in Venice, said Mr. Karanja. “We were obviously over the moon.”
Caves are important in the recent history of Kenya; Mau Mau fighters in the 1950s, they gathered there to hide and regroup after clashes with the British in Nairobi. It was, said Mr. Karanja, a place of “deep reflection” for resistance fighters “to reflect on what the African state of the future would be”. He added: “It’s a convention space.”
Cave_Bureau is also doing a separate collaboration for the biennial with Kenyan photographer Osborne Macharia, now based in Canada, in the Arsenale section.
The work of the company over the past few years is one of what Carolyn F. Strauss, founder and director of the Dutch company Slow research lab, calls “a new wave” in architecture. Instead of building the next skyscraper, these architects are focusing more on exploration and theory.
“They pose the cave as this space for reflection,” Ms. Strauss said, “but also as a space for resistance, and cultivating resilience practices was just captivating to me.
Pandemic travel restrictions have prevented Mr Karanja and Ms Mutegi from setting up the facility in Venice on their own, although Mr Karanja will attend the inauguration. Instead, they sent detailed manuals – “it’s complicated,” Ms Mutegi said – to engineers in Venice to put it all together.
“Obsidian Rain” was born out of Cave_Bureau’s long-term research and exhibition program, the anthropocene museum. What is he named for National Geographic called “an unofficial unit of geological time,” from the Industrial Revolution, when human activity began to have a substantial impact on Earth’s ecosystems and climate.
The company’s architectural, historical and anthropological works have included everything from 3D mapping of the Shimoni slave caves on the Kenyan coast, where 18th-century East Africans were chained to walls waiting to be transported to Zanzibar slave markets, to a video exploration of geothermal extraction and displacement of the Maasai in the Rift Valley.
“We’re just trying to think of this geological term, the Anthropocene, the new age of man,” Mr. Karanja said. “Trying to look, obviously, back to colonial times, the history of that era in which we live was the determining factor in our standing as a civilization. And we think having a different sort of layer and a voice on this narrative is actually very critical.
Cave_Bureau is slowly but steadily attracting international interest with the Anthropocene Museum project, which was presented in 2019 in a joint exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Design triennial in New York and at the Cube Design Museum in the Netherlands (which closed permanently this year).
This year, in addition to preparing for Venice, the architects were also invited to do a movie for the World Around Summit, presented by World Around, a new non-profit organization focused on architectural culture.
“What I like about them is that they have this agency which is very contemporary with the way people think of architecture today,” said Beatrice Galilee, co-founder of World Around and former curator of contemporary architecture and design at the Metropolitan Museum. of Art in New York.
The company doesn’t design buildings so much, she said, as “it’s really trying to deconstruct the discipline itself and question our expectations of what architects do, what our architecture should be, what it should look like and who is responsible for building our world.
But they are building buildings. British-trained Mr Karanja, 41, and Australia-trained Ms Mutegi, 42, met while working for a large architectural firm in Nairobi, and their jobs were cut the same day.
Because Nairobi was founded by the British colonial powers as segregated city at the turn of the 20th century, it remained very divided. This has led to tensions over the years.
Much of Cave_Bureau’s job, Mr Karanja said, is “using projects as a way to bring territories together”. This included helping to design part of a girls’ school in Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa, as well as Floating zebra, a community open space project in Dandora, an informal settlement adjoining the largest in the city road.
And while architects enjoy physical projects – they work in a private residence in Uganda – Ms Mutegi said if they had the funding they could one day focus primarily on their research projects.
“To put it lightly,” she says, “our private clients pay for our research.”
And it is projects like the Anthropocene Museum that have captured the imagination of many people who have discovered Cave_Bureau’s work.
“They are not just talking about the conditions in Nairobi and the type of anthropological and geological context,” said Gabriel Kozlowski, Brazilian architect who is assistant curator at this year’s biennial, “but they are trying to extrapolate that speech for discussion. more generally issues of how we live in relation to rural and urban settings, issues of racial imbalance and how to achieve equal rights in our society. “